Good Night, Boa Vista
He might say, “God bless you.” He might say, “Turn back.”
There is one main road to Boa Vista, the northernmost city in Brazil. The BR-174 winds up from Manaus through the rain forest like a flattened snake — a dead echo of the Amazon River. The air is oppressive with oxygen and the overripe smell of peat. Half-decomposed leaves lie in clumps on the double yellow lines. Wakes of vultures take flight when cars approach, revealing exotic roadkill: a short-legged tayra, the stiff hand of a spider monkey. After five hours of driving, there is a small clearing with a stone marker indicating a latitude of 0 degrees — the equator. From there, it takes another five hours to reach the city.
The military regime began construction on the six-hundred-mile road in 1967 with the goal of “settling” the north, but the project was stalled twenty years by disease and conflict with forest tribes. By the time it was finished, an estimated twenty-six hundred Waimiri-Atroari people had been killed, along with twenty-three road workers and servicemen. A monument at the equator commemorates the latter, “who gave their lives pacifying the Waimiri-Atroari indians. They did not die in vain.” A gold rush and the promise of land allotments brought tens of thousands of migrants from a poor, arid region, the Brazilian Nordeste, up the new road, nearly tripling the population of what in 1988 became the state of Roraima, with Boa Vista as its capital. Residents recall the narrow buses that would break down on the way from Manaus — it would be another ten years before the road was paved — and the bus drivers who insisted on keeping the windows closed, despite the heat and the lack of air-conditioning, for fear that the índios would shoot arrows at them from the trees.
But all that was long ago. Or long enough, at least, for those prospectors and soldiers who bushwhacked their way through indigenous territory to wash their hands and start families. The wealthier among them acquired land and cattle, and many became politicians.
Last summer, Boa Vista — the city I now call home — was in full swing for the 2018 national elections. President Jair Bolsonaro was then one of thirteen presidential nominees, alongside tens of thousands of other candidates vying for seats in the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, the two branches of Brazil’s National Congress. Around the country, full-color leaflets brightened gutters with their photoshopped smiles, motorists turned rear windshields into advertising spaces for a fee, and conflicted musicians negotiated small fortunes to record campaign jingles.
Campaign consultants summoned to Boa Vista were paid far too well to have to travel on the BR-174. From the oval windows of their jets, the Amazon rain forest must have looked like a sea of frothy, dark green foliage, its mud-colored rivers fanning out like bronchial tubes. The flight from Brasília takes three and a half hours, and for most of that time there is only forest. It seems endless. Then it ends. The jungle flattens into fenced yellowed pastures, with white specks of cattle visible at the edge of silvery pools.
Boa Vista is bigger than most visitors would expect: a sprawling net of concrete on the edge of the Rio Branco. At its heart — inside the central traffic circle — stands a thirty-foot monument with a statue of a garimpeiro, a shirtsleeved prospector bending over his gold pan. Residents say the city is built like Paris, with avenues stretching away from this traffic circle like rays of the equatorial sun. It is impossible not to think of the sun in Boa Vista. Temperatures hover between eighty and ninety degrees year-round, except in the rainy season, when dark clouds gather over the river and cool the air enough for afternoon walks past the modernist homes of statesmen and evangelical pastors. More often, the city waits until night to come alive. After dinner, families take their children to one of the many playgrounds or ice-cream parlors, or to the promenade over the river, or to the park to see the fountains that light up and jump in time with the classical music played through hidden speakers.
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Boa Vista used to be considered the number-one city in northern Brazil in which to start a family — another fact locals repeat often. To understand why it was demoted, you would have to travel even farther north. The BR-174 continues beyond Boa Vista for another 130 miles up to the small town of Pacaraima, which sits on the border with Venezuela. This route is harsher than the road from Manaus. There are no shade trees, only dry scrub and savannah. Heat waves rise off the pavement and blur the distant horizon. Still, along the way, there are people walking in the opposite direction: immigrants carrying children and dragging suitcases with broken wheels. The walk from the Venezuelan border to Boa Vista takes around five days, depending on the weather, the condition of the walker’s shoes, the weight of her suitcases, and the number of children she may have in tow. By car, the trip takes two and a half hours. Cars may slow as they pass the immigrant, their tires crunching gently over loose pebbles. A driver might even roll down the window to offer her a ride, or a bottle of water, or to spit on the road beside her. He might say, “God bless you.” He might say, “Turn back.” It really depends on who’s behind the wheel.